Women at Work - Usha Venkatachalam


Usha Venkatachalam

Corporate Training & Management Education Working in South East Asia and Southern African countries Communication and Management Skills training in multinational companies, international banks and Business Schools in India, South Africa, Malaysia and Australia at middle and senior management levels

Visiting Faculty in Managerial Communication:

Indian School of Business, Hyderabad

S.P. Jain Institute of Management & Research, Mumbai

Narsee Monjee Institute of Management, Mumbai

WOMEN AT WORK: How can women get what they want?

Success is a magnifying glass on your personality. Who you are just becomes more intense. How do I accelerate my humanity? How do I use who I am on earth for a purpose that's bigger than myself? How do I align the energy of my soul with my personality and use my personality to serve my soul? My answer always comes back to self. There is no moving up and out into the world unless you are fully acquainted with who you are. You cannot move freely, speak freely, act freely, and be free unless you are comfortable with yourself. Oprah Winfrey, Media Entrepreneur, (Newsweek October 24, 2005) - Born into a poor Mississippi family, Oprah became one of the most successful media persons and the first black female billionaire.

Somewhere amidst the public clamour to highlight the trials and tribulations of Oprah on her path to success, her message to the working woman gets buried: There is no moving up and out into the world unless you are fully acquainted with who you are. This message holds true not just for women but for all of humanity, for as Sun Tzu puts it: If you know yourself and know your enemy, you can be sure of victory in a hundred battles. If you know yourself and not your enemy, for every victory you will suffer a defeat and if you know neither yourself nor your enemy, you will succumb in every battle. Therefore, it would seem imperative for the working woman to know herself before she can come up with a list of what she wants and how to go about getting it.

How do you catch a wave upon the sand? Ran the refrain from an old ditty. How do you get to know about women at work, their background and the motivations that drive them, in a country where a vast majority of women work in not just the paid and acknowledged traditional sectors of the economy but also in the unstructured, unseen, and most certainly unpaid sectors as well? Pertinent questions about the true identity of the working woman in India arise: Is she that svelte, double-degreed international manager drawing up breakthrough marketing plans, who is the real working woman? Or is it the veiled and hunched form slogging away somewhere on a dairy farm in a village in India the real working woman? It could even be the 'super-mom'who strives to give her best to husband, career, children, pets, neighbour and extended family who is the real working woman and then again, it could be super-mom's domestic help, who as a super-mom in her own right, balances cleaning and washing for the 'memsahib' with a drunken, jobless husband, wayward kids and the extended family. Why, it could just be the emaciated construction site worker carrying loads while minding her baby, who is the real working woman.

Can this urban-rural, rich-poor, educated-illiterate divide in the country be clubbed together and put into the same bracket for reflection and analysis? One could argue that it can, given that the same cultural ethos that promotes the idea of women being weak and worthy of protection, and the historically fostered male-chauvinism pervades all of Indian society, cutting across class, learning and location. Admittedly, however, the divide is becoming more perceptible today than it ever was, especially in the new 'shining' liberalizing India. Two Indias seem to be emerging: an India of post-feminist men and women, taking more responsibility for their own decisions, development and for the lives around them and another that remains in dark ages where the dominion of the males over the females goes unchallenged. What we find today, in many steadily mushrooming urban centres in India is a new breed of self-aware, educated and articulate women emerging out of their cocoons and facing the world square on. In the past, people like Rukmini Devi Arundale or M.S Subhalakshmi; Lata Mangeshkar or Kiran Bedi, even Shanaz Hussain or Tarla Dalal would have been exceptions. Organizations like the Mahila Gram Udyog Lijjat Papad or Grand Sweets and Snacks Chennai, one of a kind. Now, we have women and organizations joining the tribe of free thinkers and do-ers everyday and soon, it is hoped, this will become a norm.

Probe a little deeper to unravel this not-so-new species of educated working Indian woman and you could open up the mythical Pandora's Box of inconsistencies and dichotomies. For every truth you find in India, the opposite is equally true. This well-worn cliché is doubly true when looking at the lives of Indian women. Indira Gandhi's rule as Prime Minister of India, for example, was a triumph for women in leadership, yet the nation under her rule was populated by hundreds of millions of impoverished women, whose lives changed remarkably little during her term. In the 1990s, India had one of the highest number of international beauty contest winners and one of the lowest rates of female literacy in the world. Maternal mortality rates in some rural areas of India are among the worst in the world, yet India has the world'largest number of professionally qualified women, with more trained female doctors, surgeons, scientists and professors than the United States. India has more working women than any other country in the world, at all levels of skill from the surgeon and the airline pilot to street sweepers and construction workers.' (David H. Wells in The Dichotomies in Indian Women's Lives).

Take these typical urban Indian scenarios for instance:

Scenario 1: A young Dalit girl who had impressed the leader of the Bahujan Samaj Party with her oratory skills went on to become his protégé and anointed successor. She wrested Lucknow's high chair for herself three times and gave the title 'Behenji' a new meaning (source: Times of India). From being dismissed at one time as Mayawati. The Illusion of Power, today, at the helm of affairs in her state, she is hailed as a clever strategist, brilliant tactician and a leader who knows the pulse of her people. Mayawati is only the latest in the line of trailblazing women politicians in India, ranging from the legendary Indira Gandhi, to the vitriolic Jayalalitha. All this, facilitated by Margaret Alva, the tireless public servant, and eloquent defender of social justice, who spearheaded a "silent revolution" that ensured the voices of her countrywomen would be heard. As a member of the Indian parliament from 1974 to 2004, she championed four major legislative amendments to strengthen women's rights in her homeland, including the devolution of more power to local government and the reservation of a third of local council seats for women. As a result of her efforts, today thousands of Indian women are engaged in the political process - as informed constituents, competitive candidates, and elected representatives. But in our flurry to congratulate ourselves and pat ourselves on the back, let us not forget the other side of the coin: About one million women have been elected to village councils in India's 500,000 village Panchayats since 1993, however, only six percent of candidates for the last national parliamentary elections were women and less than eight percent of the over 500 members of the national parliament are women.

Scenario 2: Corporate India boasts of a couple of dozen women CEOs leading large banks or corporations. Most people would agree that working conditions for women are fairly modern and progressive in India when compared to many other countries in South Asia. More and more girls attend school, enter universities and have been winning handsomely at the academic ranking sweepstakes. Increasingly more women apply to the top business schools in the country and give their male counterparts a run for their money during campus placements. However, a supposedly open secret doing the rounds in India Inc. is: "Do not employ women". The most obvious reasons given for this are that women are less committed because they prioritize motherhood and family ties; they are not career-minded translate ambitious. In fact, findings show that 70% of the women graduates of the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad do not pursue a full-time career. Elsewhere, drawing a parallel in the United States even in Ivy League business schools, the opt-out revolutionpoints to the fact that more than 60% of women graduates do not pursue a full-time career for reasons ranging from wanting more family time and earning a degree to moving away with partners or changing careers.

A study, initiated by the Confederation of Indian Industry's women empowerment committee, found that the employment of women in Indian industry is concentrated in banking, IT and IT-enabled services, media, travel, advertising, and market research. The flip-side: Although twenty five to thirty five per cent of the employees in these sectors are women, they have little representation at the top level and comprise just 10-20 per cent of the senior management. More than sixty per cent bring up the junior or administrative levels (source: CII). The study further revealed that less than 10 per cent of employees in other industries were women, and the figure fell below 5 per cent in several areas, including sales, manufacturing and technical jobs.

What also lies beneath is a silent testimony of the marginal treatment many organizations mete out to women employees. Apart from the fact that women get paid less than men for the same work they do, promotions and upward mobility go in favor of the males, apparently because of the women employees€™ €œinability to work long hours under pressure and be flexible about timings, their resistance to improving their skills, and their compulsion to play second-fiddle to their husbands' job.€ (Rajarshi Roy in Times News Network). Prejudices and biases are at work in the job situations, the society around them and in the family, restricting their freedom of thought, action and movement. The recent spate of crimes against working women in state capitals has given rise to a sense of insecurity which keeps many Indian women away from jobs. The lack of a safe, respectful and conducive work environment, too much aggression at the work place, €˜women-unfriendly' work habits, and excessive travel are everyday challenges women face and have to put up with in their work environment. While most Indian male bosses do not feel that anything needs to be done in their organizations to make them more €˜women-friendly', many of the multi-national organizations track gender diversity ratios because of international directives imposed by their parent companies. While some organizations say that they are against separate policies for women on grounds of discrimination, others say most of their employees are young and do not face any of the problems relating to married women (source:TOI).

In corporate India, the €˜glass ceiling€™ phenomenon applied to women employees is like a cruel joke: It would be more appropriate to say that Indian women are in glass cages and there is a 360-degree shattering-of-glass-act they would need to perform before they could get anywhere. For it is not just upward mobility that is restricted but social mores play a hand in limiting even lateral mobility. Habits die hard. For the generations that have grown on a diet of male-dominating laws laid down in ancient India by Manu, the mental leap to accepting all humans as equal will take as many generations to happen. Ironically, it is not just the males in society who could do with a bit of chauvinistic cleansing. The women, as testified by the number of dowry deaths, €˜baby girl in city dust bin€™ incidents, female foetecides, and €˜saas-bahu€™ serials, are as guilty and even perpetrators of gender-biased models.

In their book, €˜The Future of Men€™, Marian Salzman, Ira Matathia and Ann O€™Reilly, present a counter-argument insisting that the twenty-first century presents €˜prime conditions for women.€™ They say: €œour observations have led us to believe that an increasing equalization of women€™s powers occurs inexorably and €œnaturally€™ in modern service-oriented economies unless the authorities take specific steps to halt it, as happened in Afghanistan and is still happening in Saudi Arabia, Iran, and other strongly traditional countries. In most industrialized and modernized cultures, we are seeing a deliberate dismantling of gender-discriminatory legislation and the erosion of informal social practices that traditionally held women back, such as unequal pay for equal work, the glass ceiling, and men-only professional networking clubs and organizations. These discriminatory practices still exist, as a quick scan of male and female earnings statements would attest, but they are on the wane. And not necessarily because of the altruistic tendencies on the part of the corporate elite. We are beginning to see proof that organizational cultures that promote women faster tend to do better: Avon and eBay, to name two well-known multi-nationals.€

Does this comment apply to Indian working women? Are the conditions €“ social, political and legal €“really ideal for us lot? If it were true that discrimination was on the wane, the women of the world would have something to smile about, for the dawn of true liberalization would have risen. We cannot deny the fact that, slow and subtle social change is becoming perceptible even in India with the spread of education and the resultant rise of women in their own esteem. This is leading to their increased participation in decision making at home, in the workplace and in their communities. It is apparent that the women€™s movement, the change in social mores and values, the evolution towards an information-based economy and increased involvement in education are having a positive impact on women€™s positions in society and within their family. Undeniably though, we have a long way to go, even in industrialized and comparatively educated communities in India. And as far as the down-trodden women in rural India are concerned, they will need to go an even longer way before waking up to a dawn of equality, respect and liberation.

In their article titled, €œOff-Ramps and On-Ramps€ Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Carolyn Buck Luce (Harvard Business Review, March 2005) present an interesting conclusion based on their study: The reasons why women might €˜opt-out€™ of their careers is apparently because they find it difficult to sustain ambition. Their survey showed them that €œwhile half of the men consider themselves ambitious, only about a third of the women do€.In a similar vein, only 15% of highly qualified women (and 27% in the business sector) single out €œa powerful position€ as an important career goal; in fact, this goal ranked lowest in women€™s priorities in every sector we observed. Far more important to these women are other items on the workplace wish list: the ability to associate with people they respect, the freedom to €˜be themselves€™ at work and the opportunity to be flexible with their schedules€.These top priorities constitute a departure from the traditional male take on ambition.€

In the Indian context too it is highly probable that women are forced to live up to men€™s yardsticks for success and find themselves falling short. Indeed, at the cost of sounding like a Miss India hopeful, women need to truly believe in themselves and what they are capable of. Anne Mulcahy, who heads the Xerox Corporation once, remarked tellingly, that women can do anything if they want to and think it is possible. So, knowing one€™s strengths and leveraging them to one€™s advantage is important. Knowing one€™s weaknesses is even more essential so that we can work on developing those areas. Knowing one€™s heart and one€™s true ambition is of utmost importance in leading a fulfilled and free life. If it is a career the woman wants to pursue or a home she wants to build and raise a family she needs to go to it with all her heart and not feel pressured into doing things simply because they are the right things to do, according to society. This makes it all the more crucial that women understand their ambitions and themselves well. It is also vital that women take charge of their own lives and not always resort to pegging all their problems on the men.

Self-analysis is a powerful tool that will immediately allow one to put one€™s life in perspective. Reflecting honestly on one€™s strengths and weaknesses and anticipating the opportunities and threats around the corner helps anybody understand what they are realistically capable of and what they really want. Self-awareness encourages one to break away from the shackles of conformity and tradition and promotes creativity and individuality. Many women and even men carry on routinely with their jobs without realizing that they neither enjoy what they do nor have an aptitude for it. Knowing the world around and being educated and well-informed of rights and responsibilities will give women the confidence to work towards their dream. And finally, women need to revel in their womanhood and boo away the bogey of male chauvinism from their brains if they want to be free and feel comfortable with themselves. They would need to network with other women and speak up and act against injustice and discrimination whenever or wherever they encounter it.

In support of the female cause, biological research throws up some interesting facts about the so-called €˜weaker sex€™: the female human is genetically equipped for modern life and in some areas of physiology could be even better equipped than the male species. Women on an average live longer than men, are better at verbal communication, hear 2.3 times better than men, see more colours and have a keener sense of touch. Their emotional quotient is considered more advanced and they are instinctively more caring and nurturing. It is also an unalterable fact that women have natural maternal and homing instincts as opposed to men€™s instincts to hunt. As stand-up comedian and former TV series star Jerry Seinfeld put it aptly when he commented on how men and women use the TV remote: Men surf channels because of their hunting instincts and women find a channel and settle down to watch it because they like to nest. Of course, it would be unfair to stereotype men and women and put them into convenient categories, because science also indicates that there are some masculine qualities in all women and feminine traits in men. After all, men can€™t be all that different, being as they are, just one €˜Y€™ chromosome away. The truth is that men and women cannot fight one another in the workplace or anywhere else for they are not equal but complement one another. They need to work together simply because they bring different skills sets to the table and both are important for the success of any enterprise. In what we see around us in workplaces today, in this country we are the joint makers and inheritors of the gender-biased mindsets that exist and we have a joint responsibility in dispelling the darkness that surrounds many of us.

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